Kevin Systrom is posing for a photograph when we meet at Instagram HQ, arms splayed across the back of a sleek black sofa, with a knowing grin. “More photos!” he sighs, as he is moved to another spot in the room, with all the unconvincing exasperation of someone who quite likes having his picture taken. And so he should, because as the co-founder of Instagram, he gets asked a lot.
Systrom is a rangy 6ft 5in and prides himself on dressing smartly, by Silicon Valley standards; today he wears a light grey jacket over his T-shirt, and dark trousers. He seems older than his 31 years and has a certain swagger, exuding the self-assurance that comes with having built a $35bn technology company and a personal fortune of around $400m.
In a former life, this meeting room was bland and corporate – white plastic table, grey carpet, black mesh chairs – but a visit from Al Gore in May last year changed all that, Systrom says. “This,” he says, channelling the former vice-president’s scorn, “is an Instagram meeting room?” He called a designer friend from San Francisco, who sourced green 1970s chairs and a huge white marble table, customised wallpaper based on staff fingerprints, and prints of favourite pictures taken by the Instagram team.
On the other side of the freeway sits Facebook’s newest, Frank Gehry-designed office, housing 2,800 in one giant room. Given Instagram’s strong sense of aesthetic, you’d think they’d mind not having space inside their mothership, but Systrom insists they operate as a separate company; they are tucked away instead on Facebook’s Menlo Park campus. It’s a sprawling, pristine, plain set of buildings from the outside, the former home of Sun Microsystems, wedged between the freeway and the swampy southern edges of San Francisco Bay. The receptionist is baffled that I have arrived by public transport; Facebook and Instagram staff either drive or are shuttled the 38 miles from San Francisco in luxury coaches with Wi-Fi and air conditioning, presumably so they can keep working until the last possible moment. Inside, the floor is stripped back to the concrete and the walls are decorated with motivational posters: “Kick the shit out of Plan B”; “Leadership is best measured by what people do when you’re not around”; “Looking for love in the great forest of like.” Inside a central courtyard there is an ice-cream parlour, brightly coloured food stalls, wooden benches and energetic young people looking as if they are busy changing the world.
Founded five years ago, Instagram was born during a summer holiday in Mexico’s boho beach town of Todos Santos. Then 26, Systrom was sketching out new app ideas for the aspiring location service Burbn he was building (users could check in at various locations, and report back on their meet-ups), having already secured a $250,000 investment. Talking through an idea to introduce photographs to Burbn, Systrom’s girlfriend, Nicole Schuetz, said she wouldn’t want to post hers, because they wouldn’t look good enough; her iPhone 4 didn’t have a great camera. The answer, they concluded, was to add filters. By the end of the day, Systrom had created the X-Pro II filter and posted an image of a dog and Schuetz’s foot on an early version of Instagram (codenamed Codename).
“That first picture became everything and more than we wanted it to be,” he says, pointing out that the office coffee table is built around a giant print of that first photograph. “Back then, there was no way of showing what was going on in your life, as it happened. Facebook was still primarily desktop, Flickr was about uploading from your SLR camera, and Twitter barely had any photo support. That left this opportunity wide open to share what was happening in your life visually.” Instagram was born just a few months after the iPhone 4, a way of disguising its low-quality pictures. Since then, Systrom explains, filter usage has declined as mobile picture quality has improved. Instagram itself, however, has done anything but decline, with an unfathomable 40bn photos shared to date.
Did he foresee the size to which the site would grow? “Obviously, we couldn’t have predicted the scale, but it makes sense. Our brains are primarily visual. Letterform was just a hack, until people worked out how to communicate more perceptually.” Comparisons with Guttenberg’s 15th-century printing press and its revolutionary effect are popular with heads of technology firms who clearly hope to have as big an impact. And it is possible that some of today’s biggest tech firms may initiate a new age of enlightenment; it is equally likely they will implode after a few years and be replaced by the next cool thing. This is Systrom’s challenge, to stay on the right side of that equation.
The rapid growth of Instagram and its popularity with everyone from designers to photojournalists and politicians is one of Silicon Valley’s favourite fables. Its followers include President Obama (advocating Obamacare), David Beckham (berating the Daily Mail for criticising his parenting skills) and Kim Kardashian (trying to break the internet). It makes room for the mundane: plumbers sharing their latest jobs, teachers sharing the delight and horror of the classroom. It features bad taxidermy and horrific autopsy shots. It hosts millions of us, snapping our holidays, our children, our shopping and a disproportionate number of sunsets.
Only 18 months after founding the company, with just 13 employees serving 30 million users, Systrom and co-founder Mike Krieger found themselves caught in a bidding war between Twitter and Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg’s persistence and deep pockets won out, with a deal eventually worth (after a dip in Facebook’s share price) $736.5m.
“It was a lot of luck, a lot of opportunity and a lot of hard work,” Systrom says now of the deal and the months that led up to it. “Weekends didn’t exist. Mike and I set up an alarm on our phones if the servers were overloaded and went down, and that went off every four or five hours. Then as we grew, it went off every hour, or every 15 minutes. To this day, I have a Pavlovian response to that alarm: simultaneous nausea and anxiety. But it was also a sign of growth, which is a great problem to have. Now it’s different problems: what do we work on, what’s our strategy, how do we fend off competitors?”
Why does he think this punishing work culture appeals to so many? “When you’re small, it’s very hard to succeed without giving your entire life to this thing. The technology moves so fast and the context – your competition – changes so quickly that the one advantage you have as a small company is speed. You can pack three to four working days into one day and gain an advantage.”
Silicon Valley is known for being pressurised, highly competitive and stuffed with ambitious people who push themselves – and sometimes fail to admit they are struggling to cope. Research published in April, by Dr Michael Freeman at the University of California in San Francisco, found 49% of the entrepreneurs he surveyed reported a mental health condition; 30% felt depressed (the US average is 8%) and 27% had anxiety concerns. Suicides of company founders have cast a shadow over the industry, including 22-year-old Ilya Zhitomirskiy of Diaspora, 47-year-old Ecomom co-founder Jody Sherman and, in May this year, 31-year-old Austen Heinz of Cambrian Genomics.
But overwork seems a world away from Instagram, whose staff seem content in their secure and rapidly growing company. I am taken on a tour by the publicist, admittedly, but their delight appears genuine (“It’s my dream job!”). Does Systrom feel a duty of care towards his (often very young) team? “People don’t work in a dotcom because they have to,” he says. “There are many professions that don’t require that sort of time. But people sign up because they want to make world-changing differences, to build something that affects millions of people. These are the companies that in just a couple of years can change entire industries.” Systrom says Instagram conducts anonymous surveys to check the health of its staff, and is respectful of weekends and families. “You don’t win a marathon by sprinting all day,” he says, not sounding as heartfelt as when talking about his ambition to change the world.
Later, I talk to Ashley Yuki, a product manager who oversaw the recent introduction of portrait and landscape formats to the service. (Instagram’s square format photos are a legacy of Systrom using a Holga camera while studying photography in Florence, Italy, for one term of his Stanford degree; the switch was big news in Instagram world.) Yuki coordinates designers, engineers, marketing and every other team to get new features out on time. Does she feel Silicon Valley has a long-hours problem? “We are measured on the impact of our work – the number of people who use it, the feedback from users, the results of what we did – not how many hours we’ve worked. That lends itself to a more meritocratic culture. My schedule is flexible and I have lots of control. We work hard and I like that, so it’s a burden and a joy to be the person who can fit all those pieces together.”
Kevin Systrom was born in the wealthy Massachusetts suburb of Holliston, to a human resources executive father and a marketing executive mother, who worked at Monster and Swapit during the first dotcom boom. At Middlesex boarding school in Concord, he started to learn programming. Later, at Stanford, studying management science and engineering, he interned at Odeo, the company that went on to found Twitter. Systrom sat next to Jack Dorsey, but that didn’t help Dorsey during negotiations to buy Instagram, which Systrom and Krieger sold to Facebook for nearly twice Twitter’s offer. Dorsey hasn’t posted to Instagram since.
Systrom’s life outside work is as carefully curated as his Instagram feed: he’s into fine food, golf, skiing and holidays at California’s Lake Tahoe. His favourite Instagrammers are @symmetrybreakfast (exactly that), @everydayafrica, a group of photographers publishing shots from across the continent, and @petesouza, the White House’s official photographer. (He insists he’s been to few fashion shows, despite being photographed on the front row with Alexa Chung, and at awards ceremonies with Diane von Furstenberg and Kim Kardashian.) He is adept at redirecting unwelcome questions: when I ask if he has any political allegiances, and joke that he might have an opinion on Donald Trump, a strategic user of Instagram, he simply says he’s not political. No, he hasn’t met Trump; the other presidential candidates campaign just as effectively through his service, too.
Instagram’s new “search and explore” feature, rolled out in June for American users only, now highlights collections of Instagram accounts – extreme sports, for example, travel or fashion. It is designed to surface more diverse content, and show what’s trending now. Is this editorialising? Systrom resists the word, while claiming Instagram has rivalled his experience of television news, most powerfully when users posted hundreds of pictures of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy, in near real time, in October 2012.
Instagram began with 25,000 users, on its first day; now, thanks in part to the Facebook deal, it has 400 million people using the site every month, with 80 million photos shared every day. Systrom says this growth is largely down to Facebook’s considerable resources when it comes to sales advertising, their targeting and relevance algorithms, which he claims are helping Instagram mature more quickly than its rivals. (Research company eMarketer suggests Instagram will reach $600m in ad revenue this year, but that this will grow to $2.81bn in 2017; remarkably, Instagram is also predicted to have bigger net mobile display ad revenues than Twitter and Google by then, having introduced more innovative formats.)
While it’s hard to see how Systrom could have turned down Facebook – an offer so big, it astonished many in the tech industry at the time – what would have become of Instagram if it hadn’t signed up? “A lot of great things have happened,” Systrom says. “There are fun parts of running a startup and not-so-fun parts, and Facebook handles the not-so-fun parts, like infrastructure, spam, sales. The real questions are, how big can Instagram get? Is it 400 million, or bigger? Can it be a viable business if it is that big? These are at the top of the list for everyone in Silicon Valley.”
These are no doubt the kind of questions he puts to Zuckerberg when they meet on campus. The Facebook founder pursued him aggressively in 2012, then, after making the offer, retired to watch Game Of Thrones while Systrom made frantic calls to lawyers and investors. The pair meet weekly, inside and outside of work, and by all accounts have much in common, with Zuckerberg savvy enough to give Systrom the space he needs.
Being under the care of Facebook is a constant reminder of how much bigger Instagram could be. “At Facebook [which has 1.5 billion users every month], we’re the little kid on the block. If you ask someone on the street in India if they use Instagram, they will say no – so that’s an opportunity for us.” This is what Silicon Valley’s investors love to hear: unapologetic ambitions for global growth, no holds barred.
It’s not just Systrom who is making money from the site. Many Instagrammers claim to be earning a significant income, including Sharmadean Reid of @wahnails, Dutch fishmonger Bart van Olphen, who has used its 15-second videos to build his cookery brand, and New Yorker Liz Eswein, @NewYorkCity, who has 1.2 million followers and claims to charge advertisers $1 for every “like” on a sponsored photo. The money starts coming in when you have more than 100,000 followers, which can be worth upwards of £3,000 a month, according to professional Instagrammer Brian DiFeo, who founded an agency advising others on how to exploit the service.
Seventy-five per cent of users are outside the US, 14 million of them in the UK. I suggest to Systrom that this is photo sharing on a massive scale; he disagrees. “Calling Instagram a photo-sharing app is like calling a newspaper a letter-sharing book, or a Mozart grand era symphony a series of notes. Instagram is less about the medium and more about the network. If you’re a business, we have a product so you can buy ads. If you’re a consumer and want to entertain, you can record a 15-second looping video. If you’re an artist and want to do a piece of conceptual art, there’s a place for you, too. ‘Photo sharing’ misses the nuance.”
What makes one picture better than the other? An understanding of light is what separates a great photographer from a mediocre one, says Richard Koci Hernandez, assistant professor of new media at UC Berkeley’s journalism school in San Francisco. “Humans are conditioned to see strong shapes and patterns, and it’s light, combined with capturing that human moment, that can stop people in their tracks .” Hernandez was one of the first news photographers to document Silicon Valley’s smartphone era and has been using Instagram since it launched. Yet late last year he deleted more than 1,100 photos from his Instagram account because they were making him feel trapped, he says. A year on, he wants to do the same thing again with the 70 images he has published since – monochrome lone figures, an atmospheric city, snatched moments of real life.
“My images are a reflection of me as a photographer, so is that me? We are all influenced by likes and comments in a social space, and I have thousands of images and tons of followers.” And he does: 235,000 of them. “That was influencing who I was, and I was thinking too much about what I was posting. We are all trying to find our voice and find what is authentic, but the comments push you in a certain direction that is less objective.” Hernandez says he would like his images to live momentarily, which is exactly the appeal of Instagram’s biggest rival, Snapchat, estimated to have 200 million users, many of them younger than Instagram’s. “That backlog starts to define you,” Hernandez says, “but I think we’re always different and evolving. I’d like my images to live a couple of days and then die, so I don’t have to remember or be tied.”
Hernandez is sanguine about the popularity of selfies and pictures of latte foam; he sees Instagram as a collective experiment in visual communication. “That’s what humanity does when we get together – we want everyone to look at us. It’s the game we’re all playing. Expecting anything more from a medium in its infancy is too much to ask. I believe in the power of latte foam. Communication has to be homogenous at the start; after that, the creativity and nuance creeps in, and artists move the medium to the edges.” Maybe so, but even Ai Weiwei uses Instagram for selfies.
Systrom gives short shrift to the suggestion that his service has been overrun by hipsters and narcissists uploading pictures of their coffee. “With so many people, it’s hard to have uniformity or predictability. There are performance artists, sports stars, celebrities, people singing and doing Dubsmashes and, yes, hipsters use Instagram. But last year we had activist Katie Meyler documenting ebola on the ground, raising awareness of the epidemic in a way no one else could. We had stunning photos of the Baltimore riots, the winter storm Juno, that made the cover of the New York Times. These are not hipster shots of lattes.”
Why did Instagram succeed where other, similar services failed? There was a swath of photo-filter apps available in 2010 and most fell by the wayside. Systrom puts a large part of his success down to luck; I’d also put it down to a combination of simple design, improved smartphone cameras and an appetite for a broader network based on visual images. The service has grown thoughtfully, even cautiously, so that it remains accessible. But it will need to work hard to compete against the excitement and spontaneity of Snapchat, the speed and simplicity of text messaging, and photography fatigue (the more pictures we take, the less we seem to value them). Other challenges lie beyond the horizon, where the biggest threat might now be no more than a sketch in someone’s notebook.
So where does Instagram go from here? I ask Systrom to imagine the most fantastical feature he could add. “Imagine a world where virtual reality exists and is ubiquitous, and we have whatever device we need to experience it. How cool would it be if you were at a concert in the countryside and I could be there with you – hearing, smelling, seeing it, too? Or the presidential inauguration – that would be amazing. That’s what Instagram is now, in a very low-fidelity way. I like to say we’re working on time travel, but the difference is we’re not sending you there – it’s coming to you.”
Top of Systrom’s priorities right now is his wedding to college sweetheart Schuetz next summer. It will be a local affair, and combine good food and wine. He has read somewhere that English weddings are traditionally in the morning so he wants to do that (in California, this counts as eccentric). I tell him it means everyone just gets more drunk in the afternoon, because there’s nothing else to do before the party, and an eyebrow crumples; he is trying to work out if this is good or bad. More importantly, will the wedding be on Instagram? “I don’t think we could get away with not putting it on Instagram,” he concedes. “But I don’t think it will trend.”
Whatever comes next, Systrom is made for life. He is a model of what success currently looks like in Silicon Valley – young, white and male, with all the confidence, opportunity and connections that an expensive education can provide. Five years in and Instagram has joined the elite group of technology firms now shaping our world, albeit from a very particular perspective. I’m struck by the disparity between Instagram, the cool, sleek world it inhabits on and offline, and the real world outside. We see, we share, but what then?
It is hometime at Facebook as I leave the building and a fleet of pristine luxury buses arrives to ferry everyone back to San Francisco. I cross the nine lanes of freeway again and pay my $2.10 to catch the bus back over the Bay. It is a beautiful, hazy evening and for a second I think I might Instagram it. But I put my phone back in my bag, rest my head on the window and my eyes catch sight of a seal bobbing up from the water instead.
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